If you want your teeth done, contact the sumptuous Paolo Sorrentino. If you want a house built, contact Steven Spielberg. The great risk a director like Spielberg, whose films grapple with vast subjects like the Holocaust, life on other planets, slavery, and Abraham Lincoln, takes is that his film will never be able to grasp it all, that it will fall prostrate before its subject, flopping into mediocrity and cliche. What keeps Spielberg’s films from doing this is his profound sense of structure, of arrangement, of timing, of letting the stages of a story, such as Frank Abagnale Jr.’s from ‘Catch Me If You Can‘, unfold gradually rather than cutting to the maudlin chase too soon. This sense of craft, of what English majors would call the "well-wrought urn," can be found all over his work, perhaps most notably, as video essay dynamo Jacob T. Swinney points out, in his shots. Swinney has assembled 30 shots here, all of which bring that reaction—you know, the sharp intake of breath that follows a dramatic, thematic leap by a director, a jump into territory that might be (but isn’t) too big for the film at hand (cf. the red sweater in ‘Schindler’s List‘). If you look at the shot, you see that it’s the composition, as much as the extenuating circumstances, that bring the reaction. If you were to try to pin down what it is about the composition that’s giving you chills… you would come up short. But the structure is there, and it’s usually a part of a much larger story structure, one that is, in the words of many a financial journalist, too big to fail. Why is it that a bicycle moving across a full moon in ‘E.T.’ is so magical? It could be because everything in the frame is centered; it could be because a full moon is very close to a perfect circle; it could be because we like imagining such an arc, because it recalls our own dreams as children. Whatever the cause, if you want to study Spielberg’s magisterial structure, his shots provide a good place to start.
Watch: Steven Spielberg, Housebuilder, Shot by Shot